The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl and then actually got substantially better this past offseason with a series of aggressive moves and a lot of salary cap space to utilize. Then in the draft, without a first- or second-round pick at their disposal, many pundits couldn’t believe that defensive end Derek Rivers was still on the board for the Patriots with the 83rd pick.
New England’s biggest weakness from a year ago was its pass rush. Well, sorta. The defense did allow the fewest points in the NFL during the regular season. But, as usual, Bill Belichick did things differently.
Because they always pick so late in drafts, the Patriots have a tough time acquiring and keeping high-end edge pass rushers. So, as you can expect, they have morphed their defense accordingly. Throughout their front seven, New England features excellent run defenders. The Patriots are very big and physical on the defensive line and at linebacker.
As a result, they have made their big nickel defense more or less their base unit. They get away with having three safeties on the field, because their defensive line and linebackers are so stout against the run. This gives New England more versatility with their matchups in coverage, and they play a lot of man-to-man at a high level. It is a very good and very versatile secondary that got even better with the signing of Stephon Gilmore.
Adding to that, no team in the NFL rushed just three defenders as much as New England last season. They Patriots didn’t have top edge rushers, so instead of sending those players upfield as pass rushers, New England dropped their edge players a high percentage of the time.
Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard are gone. Along with Rivers, the Patriots have new edge additions in Kony Ealy, who they acquired in trade from Carolina, and another draft pick, Deatrich Wise, whom New England selected in the fourth round. There has been a lot of buzz about Wise, and he showed well early in the game before sustaining an injury in the second quarter. Ealy did some pass rushing from an interior defensive line spot, but isn’t a dynamic player off the edge.
Thursday night was the first time we got to see these three in action. Ealy fits more of the run- stuffer mold, but maybe if this trio can infuse a pass rush off the edge for the Patriots, they will change up their scheme. Another rookie, Harvey Langi, started the game and had an overall nice performance in his debut. But let’s mostly focus on how Rivers performed.
First off, New England basically didn’t play any starters when hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars in their first preseason game. Even so, Rivers didn’t officially “start” the game for New England. However, he first saw the field on the first third-down situation as the Patriots’ right defensive end.
Over the course of the game, we saw Rivers come out of a three- and two-point stance, mostly from the left side. It didn’t happen often, but he did drop into coverage here and there. In the first half, he covered TJ Yeldon on a quick-hitting angle route. Rivers looked out of place in this capacity, but the results worked out OK for New England. Mostly, Rivers did battle at the line of scrimmage on the edge against the run or pass, and the Patriots kept it simple for him.
For the majority of the first half, Rivers and the rest of New England’s backup defenders battled against mostly the Jaguars’ first-team offense. So that can’t be overlooked when analyzing how Rivers did in his debut.
That is good to know, as Rivers did little to distinguish himself against Jacksonville. He has a long frame and narrow waist, and looks like he would benefit by adding a few pounds. He struggled getting off blocks and could stand to add more upper- and lower-body strength. Rivers did show a good get-off, but too often rushed himself out of the play too far upfield.
He didn’t appear to do a very good job attacking the edges of his opposing blockers, and when his first move was stymied, Rivers didn’t show much of a penchant for going to a second alternative. He did fight his way to a near-sack midway through the first quarter when Blake Bortles held the ball too long, but that was probably the highlight of his evening.
Jacksonville hit on a few huge plays, including 97- and 79-yard touchdowns in the first half, and Leonard Fournette gained chunks of yardage running downhill. New England allowed more than 200 yards on the ground. Rivers did little to stand out or slow down the Jaguars despite playing a high percentage of snaps.
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